Decades of Oppression Foment Bahrain Revolution
By: Shahira Salloum
Published Wednesday, February 13, 2013
On Thursday, 14 February 2013, the Bahrainis, like many of their peers in the countries of the so-called Arab Spring, will celebrate the second anniversary of their uprising. But the people of the small island nation have had a different revolution.
The distinctiveness of the events in Bahrain stems from the fact that their experiences since 14 February 2011 made up only the latest chapter in their perpetual uprising.
Historical Roots of Revolution
The indigenous people of the island like to be called the Baharna, so as to set themselves apart from the ruling House of Khalifa.
The House of Khalifa belongs to the Bani Utbah tribe, which invaded Bahrain in the late 18th century from Qatar, and proclaimed themselves the rulers of the island. Since then, the Baharna have been in a state of continuous revolution.
An overwhelming 98 percent voted in favor of independence in a UN survey following the British withdrawal from Bahrain.
In the early 1970s, the people of Bahrain rose up against Iranian claims of sovereignty over the island, which were motivated by oil discoveries. Shortly after, the Bahrainis took to the streets in the late 1970s and ‘80s, to demand the reinstatement of the Constitution of 1973 that had been suspended by the Emir.
With the House of Khalifa monopolizing power and wealth in the country – distributing only crumbs exclusively to their followers in the Sunni tribes – they also called for more justice and equality. Because of this, the crisis adopted sectarian undertones. The dissenters were met with exile and detention, but they continued their uprising.
The Reforms of the ‘90s
The 1990s witnessed a large amount of protests, many of which took a violent turn. In truth, the current uprising in Bahrain is hardly comparable to what the kingdom witnessed during this period, when the regime of the late Emir Isa bin Salman implemented a brutal crackdown of the protests.
According to insider reports, the late monarch was absent from the picture, and was deluded into believing that his subjects were living in peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, real power was in the hands of his brother, current Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.
Yet this time around the struggle was not in vain. The Baharna reaped the fruits of their 1990s uprising at the beginning of the third millennium with the ascent of Hamad bin Isa to power.
Even though the new emir would later proclaim himself king over a country with no more than 600,000 native inhabitants, no bigger than 750 square kilometers, he launched historical reforms, released political prisoners, and allowed dissidents abroad to return to the country and establish political parties.
These reforms were included in the National Action Charter, and tackled issues like the system of government, socio-economic policies, national security, and parliamentary life. It was approved in a national referendum that garnered a 98 percent vote in favor.
The new reforms allowed opposition parties to operate legally and relaxed restrictions on the freedom of assembly and expression. Many political parties were subsequently established and would compete in the elections that followed.
Nevertheless, the opposition had many qualms with the Constitution of 2002, which was drafted to include the reforms. From the outset, the drafting process lacked transparency, and opposition figures were not duly consulted.
The constitution also changed the National Assembly legislature from unicameral to bicameral with an elected Council of Representatives and an appointed Consultative Council, which the constitution granted veto powers over legislation.
This did not stop the opposition from participating in the government formed in 2006, where Shia were represented by four ministers for the first time.
Under the new reforms, the post of deputy prime minister was occupied by a Shia, also for the first time, and a Bahraini of Iranian origin was assigned a ministerial post.
But preference in sensitive government positions, like the interior and defense ministries, was still given to Sunnis. Meanwhile, issues like equality and social justice remained unresolved. The House of Khalifa’s monopoly over power and wealth continued unchallenged.
The new reforms did not substantially address these issues, leading to the emergence of opposition groups that refused to participate in the government and the elections. Instead, they became active, both at home in Bahrain and abroad, lobbying for real and comprehensive reforms.
Against this backdrop, the Baharna rose up once again with the eruption of the Arab Spring. The early signs of this uprising began to emerge shortly before the wave of protests swept the Arab world, when the authorities turned the screws on dissidents and repeated the same old claims about coup plots by Iran-backed groups.
The uprising was suppressed after other Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, intervened militarily in Bahrain. Indeed, the Saudi regime saw the protest movement in the island as a threat, and a gap through which Iran, its arch nemesis, could infiltrate its backyard via the Shia protesters.
The crackdown was sustained month after month, witnessing the worst kinds of abuse, torture, and harassment. The sectarian card was also craftily played by the regime to instigate strife and create divisions among opposition groups.
In spite of the obstacles, the protests continued. Bahrainis around the world worked to spread the word about the demonstrations. They ultimately succeeded in exposing the regime’s brutal methods and the silence of the Arab and international community, which snubbed their uprising on sectarian grounds.
The uprising of the 1990s engendered historical reforms and a new king, but the job was not finished, and the reforms did not bring about justice as desired.
The current uprising has yet to bear fruit, and if the current king is unable to go down in history as the man who fulfilled these legitimate demands, then perhaps he should step aside and clear the way for someone who is more capable.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.